Rookie guard CJ McCollum’s recent assignment to the NBA D-League should be setting off alarms across Blazer nation, but not for the usual reasons. It isn’t exactly the insufficient talent dilemma Phoenix faced last season with Kendall Marshall. Outside of Las Vegas Summer League, McCollum has not played a competitive basketball game since the first time he fractured his left foot, nearly one year ago (January 5th, 2013). His skills are there, but he needs a couple low-key games to find a rhythm before playing with the rest of the Trail Blazers. His return from injury is imminent.
But what on Earth are the Trail Blazers going to do with him once he is ready? He is too good to ride the pine and too inexperienced to supplant veteran guard Mo Williams in Terry Stotts’ rotation. As a 6’3” combo-guard with a penchant for scoring, McCollum is an ideal tweener in a non-ideal situation. That’s a substantial part of why the Trail Blazers haven’t treated his return with the arms race urgency you’d expect with a key player. It has been nearly 13 weeks since McCollum re-broke his foot in training camp on October 5th, 2013.
Portland is approaching a potential lose-lose scenario for their recovering rookie. When CJ McCollum returns, they will have four guards in rotation (Lillard, Matthews, Williams, McCollum), three of whom are point guards first. It’s an embarrassment of riches that can’t be fully utilized in 48 minutes. Since McCollum and Williams can play either guard position if forced to, there are several possible pairings for Stotts’ to work with, but the most likely ones leave McCollum high and dry for court time.
PG: Damian Lillard | Mo Williams | Earl Watson
SG: Wesley Matthews | CJ McCollum | Allen Crabbe | Will Barton
SF: Nicolas Batum | Dorell Wright | Victor Claver
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge | Thomas Robinson
C: Robin Lopez | Joel Freeland | Meyers Leonard
It makes little sense to push the 6’0” Mo Williams to shooting guard in the secondary when the 6’3” CJ McCollum is equally capable of holding down the position. Playing McCollum at the two is a matchup necessity in an undersized backcourt. Defining their roles in this way creates a dearth of playing time for both backups. Even if starters Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews saw their minutes cut to 30 apiece (not going to happen), CJ McCollum and Mo Williams would only receive an anemic sub-20 with which to impact a game.
Unless a major injury occurs in the Trail Blazers’ lineup, CJ McCollum will be very limited in his rookie season. He may have successfully jumped between point guard and shooting guard at Lehigh to accommodate Mackey McKnight, Anthony D’Orazio, and Corey Schaefer, but there is one fundamental difference between then and now: He is no longer the priority. As strange as it sounds for a mid-first round draftee that has yet to play in the NBA, he may be overqualified for his position.
That’s bitter sweet news for the Trail Blazers. On one hand, Portland stands to become even stronger, but on the other, they could be wasting a major talent. Fortunately, Terry Stotts has the flexibility to play with pairings and create minutes. He does not necessarily have to play Mo Williams and CJ McCollum to the same extent if he does this. My concern is that the amount of experimentation necessary to perfect the formula may come at the cost of chemistry for the duration; something Portland cannot afford when the first and eighth seed in the West are separated by only six wins.
So expect CJ McCollum to chip in minimally at first. He may take enough minutes from Mo Williams to contribute in the long run, but I’m not sure that’s the best thing for the Trail Blazers this year. They need a veteran presence at backup point guard if they make the playoffs; especially because Damian Lillard has never competed in the post-season. As frustrating as Williams’ can be at times, it would be irresponsible to decrease his role come April.
Regardless of how much CJ McCollum ends up playing, we’re going to see great things from him. He’s a smart player who can create his own shots and doesn’t struggle with off ball defense like Lillard or Williams. The Trail Blazers could see larger returns from McCollum in a smaller role, despite his level of aptitude. If you would like to see him perform before he rejoins the team in a limited capacity, his debut with the Idaho Stampede will be available to watch live on the NBA D-League Youtube channel at 6:00 p.m. Friday evening.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Trail Blazers will host the Charlotte Bobcats at 7:00 p.m. in the Moda Center tonight. Watch to see how Mo Williams interacts with Wesley Matthews when they play together, as he will likely be called upon to foster a similar dynamic with CJ McCollum when the rookie returns. If Williams and McCollum can replicate that chemistry in immediate fashion, the 25-7 Trail Blazers may be able to utilize their prize of the 2013 NBA draft without missing a beat in their historically hot start.